German Curbs Unlikely to Halt Toxic Weapons

Times Staff Writer

Although the West German government plans to crack down on companies exporting supplies that are used in the production of chemical weapons, most analysts here believe that export controls will not halt the spread of such weapons.

And while West Germans were deeply embarrassed to learn that their firms were once again involved in the manufacture of poison gas, specialists say that materials for chemical weapons are too readily available here and elsewhere to prevent proliferation.

“I don’t think export controls will be effective any longer,” said one expert in strategic studies. “If a country thinks it needs chemical weapons, it will get them. The materials are too easy to obtain through ordinary means--if the price is right.”

To many U.S. officials, this view of the efficacy of export controls on chemical products is pessimistic at best and cynical at worst. It was U.S. intelligence sources who came up with the information that Libya was building a plant to produce chemical weapons and the U.S. government that first notified the West German government that West German companies were supplying the materials and expertise.


But in Europe, some officials believe the U.S. insistence on export controls as a way to curb the spread of chemical weapons is either naive or hypocritical. Such views might go some way to explaining, even if they do not justify, the generally lax approach that West Germany has taken toward export controls, experts say.

Partly, this is a reflection of the general European attitude that trade sanctions are rarely effective against nations: Other countries simply provide outlawed goods. The European Community, for instance, did not go along with the U.S. sanctions imposed on Libya in 1986 for that country’s alleged support for terrorism.

Hans-Juergen Muller, an official with the Assn. of Exporters in Hamburg, declared in one typical statement: “A country isn’t going to tell us, ‘We want you to build a chemical weapons factory.

Buying Through Brokers

“Instead, it will buy, through brokers, everything it needs: piping, compressors, air conditioning, valves and raw materials--from 10, 20 or 30 different suppliers. You can’t put all these things on an export blacklist.”

Another explanation for West Germany’s laissez-faire approach, say observers, is the country’s reliance on exports to fuel its economic powerhouse: More than 30% of its gross national product is shipped abroad.

The chemical industry has developed into one of West Germany’s biggest and best, and competition for overseas sales and export of expertise is intense, they say.

But the lack of strong export restrictions, officials say, is also due to the postwar constitution, which emphasizes the rights of private concerns and has encouraged a certain permissiveness on the part of the government.

Then, too, as a result of the constitution, federal supervision of exports--about 1.5 million items a month--is diffuse.

The Federal Economics Agency of the Economics Ministry is the export-licensing agency. Its 75 employees have to process 100,000 special applications a year. All but a few dozen are approved.

However, violations of the export laws are monitored by the Customs Office, which comes under the Finance Ministry.

“Often there is a lack of coordination between the two bureaucracies,” commented a senior official.

That is not the extent of the bureaucratic confusion. The reports from the secret Federal Intelligence Service on the involvement of West German companies in the Libyan chemical complex were never forwarded to the Finance Ministry for investigation.

West Germany, like other European nations, does have controls on exports in certain sensitive areas. Armaments such as tanks and artillery, for instance, may not legally be exported to “areas of conflict.”

“Britain and France are much more lax in exporting arms than West Germany,” said Muller of the Export Assn.

Exports of nuclear technology must be licensed, but that law has been abused by West German exporters in recent years.

Exports of electronic technology, particularly to the East Bloc, are restricted by the 16-nation, Paris-based, Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls.

And the shipment of some chemical technology, too, requires a license.

‘Dual-Use’ Material

However, in the case of chemical technology, controls are complicated by the fact that much chemical material is “dual-use"--that is, the goods being exported may be used for benign purposes such as the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and pesticides--as well as for creating a chemical weapons plant.

Further, equipment makers do not necessarily ship to end-users but often to international brokers who may buy the catalyzers, retorts, tubing and other materials, so that manufacturers do not have a clear idea of how their products will eventually be used.

Chemical raw materials are also “dual use.” For instance, thiosdisglycol is used in the manufacture of a dozen ordinary products, from photography solutions to ballpoint pens, but it is also used for making mustard gas.

Certain chemicals are “precursors” of poison gas--that is, they are the source of toxic substances or chemicals to make toxic substances--and half a dozen of these are subject to West German export controls. But unscrupulous exporters can declare the end-users of precursors to be reputable.

Under German rules, it is the manufacturers who decide whether a product needs an export license, and this discretion is easily abused.

But some industry observers say that plugging loopholes will not solve the problem of chemical weapons proliferation.

“Today,” one analyst said, “a country can get most everything for toxic weapons from a Third World country like Brazil.”

To curb West German exports of dangerous chemicals, the Kohl government has announced stronger enforcement measures, including fines of up to about $600,000 and prison terms of up to five years. It has also strengthened the investigating staffs and improved cooperation among ministries.

Still, it will be difficult to control the end-user, and as the Export Assn.'s Muller put it: “It is simply impossible to stop all goods with a potential military use. Materials can be shipped to third countries which don’t require end-user certificates.”

West German manufacturers are defensive about the German chemical industry’s role in supplying plants in Iraq and Libya, reinforcing a posture that strikes some U.S. officials as either unduly complacent or crassly commercial.

“In some cases, the West German supplier companies probably didn’t know what the end-use would be,” a U.S. official here said.

“I don’t think the really big chemical companies would become involved in shady weapons deals, because their reputations are at stake. But smaller firms might be tempted to supply toxic gas. And, unfortunately, that’s all it takes.”